What Dilma Rousseff’s reelection means for Brazil

November 7, 2014, 7:20 PM UTC
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Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, the seventh largest economy and—until 2010—it was one of the globe’s fastest-growing economies. Since, there’s been economic stagnation, inflation, charges of corruption and the bankruptcy of oil giant Oleo e Gas Participacoes SA.

Despite all that, Brazilian voters recently reelected President Dilma Rousseff, who became the country’s first female leader four years ago.

That’s how Fortune Washington correspondent Nina Easton started her most recent episode of “Smart Women, Smart Power,” the weekly podcast she hosts in partnership with Fortune and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her guests—Cassia Carvalho, executive director of the Brazil-U.S. Business Council Executive Director, and Dr. Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies and the Global Brazil Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations—dove into the topic of the Brazilian president and what her reelection means for the country’s future, both politically and economically.

Both guests were positive about Brazil at-large. “It’s such a fascinating country: its people, its culture, its history. Fun and friendly—and positive energy. The music. The food. I just love Brazil,” said Carvalho. Sweig echoed that sentiment. She moved to the country just over five years ago and said she’s likewise fallen for the country.

Sweig’s also interested in Brazil’s foreign policy potential. “It’s a very strategic country for the United States, for the rest of the world to understand,” she said. “The fact that it produces almost everything in the world that the rest of the world needs, and because it’s had such a recent and big splash on the world stage [with the 2014 World Cup], it’s been a country that I really want to follow and understand what makes it tick.”

To learn that, it makes sense to also understand what makes the woman running the country tick. Rousseff’s father fled Bulgaria due to political persecution, explained Carvalho, so political movement is very much a part of her DNA. As a young woman living in Brazil in the 1960s, Rousseff fought against the country’s militaristic oppressive regime; her protests led to a stint in jail and torture—and she lost close friends who fled the country or killed themselves due to the pressure. “This is a woman who lived under harsh circumstances, was constantly on the move,” added Carvalho. “This defined her personality and her character. She’s a tough woman with a strong personality.”

Rousseff’s maintained her fighter reputation. Many other Brazilian women of her generation faced similar experiences to Rousseff, so they provide a political base, said Sweig. “Brazil is just modernizing its treatment of women,” she explained. Rousseff represents the start of that pushback, a part of Brazil’s history.

But the country is at an inflection point. Younger generations, who have used social media to organize and stage protests against the Rousseff administration’s lavish spending during the 2014 World Cup, are not necessarily happy with the current leadership. “What we haven’t seen yet is who are the next generation leaders who are going to enter into Brazil’s political system,” said Sweig.

“I do think that President Rousseff and her party, the Labor Party, may very well be the last cycle of the party in power,” said Carvalho. “We may actually get a change in government in the next election,” she added, stating that it will most likely be more focused on a free market.

Before that change, Brazil has a rocky road ahead. Its relationship with the United States is on the mend, after former-NSA computer analyst Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government had been spying on Rousseff—but has a long way to go. U.S. vice president Joe Biden met with Rousseff during this summer’s World Cup. “My speculation,” said Sweig, “is that we’re gonna try to see both countries turn over a new leaf and make plans for a state visit.” There’s also the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics, which will once again turn the world’s eyes on Brazil—and likely spark another slew of social movements by younger Brazilians.

Those protests may not be a bad thing. In fact, they might be the place to spot the faces of Brazil’s future. “Between now and 2016, we can assess whether those new leaders that we’re all looking for are ready to make their debut.”

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